A Dream Deferred: Abu Fofanah’s Journey from Civil War to Penn State

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Abu Fofanah, born in the midst of the Sierra Leone civil war, doesn’t remember much of his early childhood.

He doesn’t remember his father being killed in the conflict or his mother quickly applying to an Immigrant Lottery Visa for a chance to come to the United States, nor does he remember winning the lottery and moving to Texas at age 3.

All he remembers is a soccer ball.

Fifteen years later, as a freshman at Penn State, Fofanah planned to walk onto the school’s soccer team, set to follow in the footsteps of his cousin and become a professional player.

“Soccer was my life,” he says.

In many ways, though Fofanah no longer plays competitively, soccer still is his life. But as a result of various factors, Fofanah, now a junior at Penn State, has relinquished his pursuit of a career as a professional footballer. Instead, forced to abandon his dream after losing the opportunity to play Division I soccer for the Nittany Lions, Fofanah decided to pursue a different goal – creating a company, now known as MoAp, which designs apparel popular throughout both the Penn State community and national vendors.

This summer, Fofanah will look to spread his company’s message to an even greater audience by vending at popular events like the Firefly Music Festival and the Penn Relays.

Still, Fofanah doubts his decision to forgo a soccer career every day.

***

Upon arriving in America, Fofanah and his family bounced around for their first few months before ultimately relocating to southwest Philadelphia, where his mother’s sister had a small house.

“The neighborhood wasn’t good at all,” he says.

Nor were the living conditions. In addition to housing Fofanah’s mother and six other siblings, his aunt was also raising two children. Many of them had to sleep in the same room, in uncomfortably close quarters. Fofanah’s mother had to work multiple jobs to pay the bills.

“It was tough — sometimes I would hardly see her,” Fofanah says. “I could tell she was tired, hardly sleeping at all at night. She did any little job she could pick up along the way.”

But it was at that house, in poverty stricken Philadelphia, where Fofanah further honed his love of the beautiful game.

Fofanah and his family played countless hours of soccer in the backyard, despite the absence of grass. If someone fell, it would be on hard concrete. Still, he looks back on those memories fondly.

“That was the best part [of living in that house],” he says.

But playing against older, often more experienced competition, including his older siblings and cousins, Fofanah was forced to pick himself up from the asphalt more often than not.

He was no stranger to the soccer pitch in his own right. In fact, he was a star. By ninth grade, he was enrolled in Girard College – a boarding school located within the city’s limits – on a full academic scholarship. In three years with his varsity team, he led all Philadelphia high schools with 73 goals in three seasons.

Girard, more than allowing Fofanah to further his passion for soccer, also provided him with an escape from the struggles of growing up poor in the city.

“It was a lot different,” he says. “The food was always there. I didn’t have to worry about not having dinner.”

His success at Girard ultimately meant that he never needed to worry about feeding himself again, as his play earned him several athletic scholarships offers to play Division I soccer.

However, he opted instead to attend Penn State and its Schreyer Honors College program on a full academic scholarship, leaving behind guaranteed Division I playing time for a less-than-guaranteed chance to walk on for the Nittany Lions.

Had the choice been solely up to him, though, Fofanah would have accepted one of his athletic scholarships, and pursued the next four years as a student-athlete. In fact, the idea of attending college, period, never truly appealed to him.

“I didn’t see the value in it,” he says. “I thought that if you were a hard worker, you’d be a hard worker without college.”

However, his mother would have none of that.

“My mom always said, ‘I didn’t come over here for you guys to play sports,’” Fofanah says.

***

Even though he didn’t believe in the value of a college education at the time, Fofanah was determined to succeed in his academic pursuits. He didn’t want anyone to doubt that he had earned a free education from one of the nation’s best schools.

But even though he was giving his academics their due attention, his end goal was still to play soccer at the highest level. All while meeting the demands of being a Schreyer Scholar in the Smeal College of Business, Fofanah was in the process of trying to walk on with Penn State’s varsity team his freshman year. Unbeknownst to him at the time, it would prove to be a wholly discouraging experience.

While Fofanah was consistently invited to practice with the Nittany Lions, he remained on the team’s tryout squad, even though tryouts were supposed to last a mere week. He was stuck in this ambiguous middle ground between being an active player and an aspiring team member for months.

“The team captains kept telling me I was on the team,” he says.

But the coaching staff never made it clear if Fofanah had secured a spot on the roster.

Then, one day, he received an email from his coach telling him that he wasn’t going to be playing soccer for Penn State.

“[Coach] couldn’t give me a reason behind it,” Fofanah says. “After that I wanted to transfer out.”

Disheartened and even depressed, Fofanah looked to transfer to a school that had expressed interest in him back in high school. Drexel, La Salle, Haverford, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania were all on his list.

“I was really considering La Salle because I have about eight friends who play there,” he says. “And I had someone backing me who played in the M.L.S. and also attended La Salle. He was my brother’s best friend. He would always give me advice.”

***

If he had decided to transfer at the end of his freshman year, he may never have found the inspiration to start his company, which is now his life.

Fofanah decided to delay his decision until his sophomore year, at the earliest. Looking to make some money in the meantime, he happened across an on-campus job as a summer events counselor, and decided to take the position and spend the summer after his freshman year in State College.

Through that job, Fofanah helped with the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Summer Games, held in State College annually. There, he observed that the Special Olympics athletes were content in aspiring to function as the average person does on a day-to-day basis.

“Despite all that’s going on in their lives, they always think things will be okay,” he says.

Though he was only involved with the Special Olympics for a short period of time, Fofanah was inspired. Through the Special Olympics athletes, he realized that he was privileged to have the option of deciding between the pursuit of professional soccer and “settling” for a good education. He says that the Special Olympians were a primary reason why he decided to stay at Penn State.

“They helped me think that everything would be okay,” he says. “From then on I thought that, no matter what happened with soccer, I knew I had to keep moving forward. I wanted to spread this view of optimism.”

Fofanah decided that the best avenue for accomplishing this was to create an apparel company, which didn’t require too much start up capital — perfect for Fofanah’s college budget — while combining his personal mission to spread the Special Olympians’ optimism with the knowledge he was garnering from his Smeal coursework.

He started doing some market research into whether or not other apparel companies were “spreading this view of optimism,” and found, quite simply, that they weren’t. While brands such as Life is Good were motivational in a way, they mainly targeted an older demographic. Fofanah then realized that no positive message-based clothing company on the market was designed to the 18-to-25-year-old age group.

MoAp — short for Motivational Apparel — was thus born. Fofanah kicked off his business with thirty shirts and a vendor stand. Within two hours Fofanah had sold out.

“I began thinking that, maybe I could do something with this,” he says.

***

By the halfway point of his sophomore year, Fofanah’s business, which he named Motivational Apparel – MoAp for short – was already profiting. At times, he was selling at such a high rate that he was forced to sell the shirt off of his back if he had run out of a certain line.

He even got to present his apparel to John Legend at a meet-and-greet following the singer’s speech at Eisenhower Auditorium. Legend, impressed with the designs, grabbed a t-shirt from Fofanah along with his business card.

“I’m just waiting for my phone to ring,” Fofanah jokes.

Legend, in return, provided some important advice about the path to success to the budding entrepreneur.

“He told me that it’d be a lot of work, a lot of staying up late, a lot of sacrifices,” Fofanah said. “But that, if I stayed consistent and didn’t cut corners, then the end result will be worth it.”

For the most part, Fofanah has followed Legend’s advice. He often goes days without sleeping. Last semester, he balanced 27 credits in pursuit of a Supply Chain major with an IST minor and working two on-campus jobs with running his own company.

But, as Legend also promised, the end result — or at least some early successes — is slowly coming to fruition.

One day, Fofanah met a girl in the dining commons who was wearing a MoAp shirt. Without introducing himself as MoAp’s founder, he asked the student where she got the apparel.

She enthusiastically told Fofanah about his own site, and even offered him the link if he was interested in purchasing some inventory.

“I knew then that people knew about my company,” he said.

Fofanah hopes to expand his success beyond State College this summer by taking his company on the road. He’ll be vending at the Penn Relays on April 26. Then, he plans to kick start a campaign to raise $10,000 for his self-named Summer Solstice Tour, his response to the impersonal, social media-driven marketing campaigns of other companies.

“I’m going to get on the ground, across the country at certain events, sharing experiences,” Fofanah says.

Meanwhile, he’s set to complete a summer internship in IST consulting, helping companies develop synergy between technology and business. But even with less-than-ideal time constraints, Fofanah is determined to further develop his apparel startup.

“This summer, I’m all in for MoAp,” he said. “When I graduate I want to make sure I’m working for myself.”

***

MoAp has given Fofanah the chance to reinvent his own image. He’s not just known for his soccer prowess anymore. He now identifies as someone who influences people’s daily actions at the most basic level: the clothes they chose to wear.

He feels fulfilled in that others have embraced his mission of spreading optimism through apparel. “It’s just a tee shirt,” he says. “But I’ve learned it’s not about what people wear — it’s about why people wear it.”

But even though he’s dedicated to moving forward with his company, Fofanah still feels the itch to pursue what had been his lifelong dream: a professional soccer career.

“I think about it every morning, if I made the right decision staying here,” he said. “Penn State was always fine — it was just that soccer was my passion. Soccer trumped my friends, my classes, everything.”

And while the future beckons, Fofanah can’t escape the uncertainties of the present.

“It’s not doing it for me. I don’t know if it ever will,” he said. “Soccer is still the most important thing to me. It was what I wanted to do; it was who I wanted to be. If the opportunity arises, that’s still my dream.”

Fofanah still wakes up early everyday to complete strenuous soccer workouts, running six miles at a time, dribbling through cones, and playing every so often. But his continued pursuit of his soccer dream, along with the increasing workload from both MoAp and his schoolwork, has hurt others parts of his life — his health, since he’s often too busy to eat healthily or to sleep, and his friendships, some of which have faded since Fofanah spends so much time working on his company.

“What’s missing in my life?” he asks. “Balance.”

But though he still questions his decision to stay in college, Fofanah does acknowledge that he’s finding value in his Penn State education. Specifically, he praises the university for promoting student interactions with successful professionals in multiple career fields.

Fofanah believes that the most helpful parts of his experience at Penn State are what he calls “soft-spoken conversations” — for instance, a meaningful interaction with a CEO of a company, instead of an in-class assignment to read about that CEO.

Some day, Fofanah may very well be the CEO of his own company. But for now, he’s only a junior in college, weighing a future in business against his childhood dream of making it in professional soccer. He says that someday, he could maybe combine both of those passions by purchasing a  professional soccer team.

“I’d probably invest in MLS because it’s not as big,” he said.

But for now, stuck between pursuing a life as a CEO and a career as a soccer player, Fofanah often finds himself contemplating the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Though he doesn’t know what the future holds for his dreams, Fofanah feels fortunate to have lived the life described in Hughes’ poem.

“I’m glad I was able to experience that first hand,” he says. “I’m glad I’ve been able to ask myself how I can reinvent myself.”

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Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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